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Friday, December 28, 2012

End of the Year email; on Tarantino, cultural signifiers and the slaughter of innocents

Technically, I'm on retreat. I've spent the past couple of days from the crack of dawn to ten at night in cultivating insight and hopefully inclining more toward enlightenment. That said, I took today off to check out "Django Unchained" and as happens, this provided the subject in part, of an email to my sister.

It may or may not be of any great insight or use, but I found ideas and words voicing themselves more than I intended.

To wit:

I took a break today to go see "Django", Tarantino's new one. It's really good. I think he still enjoys film-making and truthfully, the sucker can write. Plus: ace performances from Jamie Foxx, Christolph Waltz (dude's amazing), Dicaprio (having the time of his life!), and Samuel L. Jackson turning in what may be his best work ever (yes, even "Pulp Fiction" and his Spike Lee work.)

In addition to the performances, the other plus is that Tarantino has a better grasp of the material than he had in the grossly over-rated "Inglorious Basterds"; the minus side? It's not Tarantino-specific, but I'm tired of gun fights, explosions and the rest of it. There. I said it. *I*, of all people, said it. But I'm bored. I've seen people eviscerated, shot, blown up, tortured, eaten by zombies (and other people) and who knows what else and while I get the exploitation film-as-cultural signifier, etc., I'm bored with it all.

Honestly, it's become so commonplace I was so happy to see "Silver Linings Playbook" almost because no one was shot up, bludgeoned or otherwise assaulted. My god! Deniro wept instead of blowing someone's head off!

Interestingly, I watched "The Expendables 2" with Nick, "In Time" and Soderbergh's "Contagion" with [my nephew and his wonderful girl friend] Dan and Meghan. "Contagion" had no one getting shot, just people dying by the buttload from, well, a pandemic. Glad I saw it, it's one of Soderbergh's more thought provoking films, and may be one of his last (kick-ass performances by Damon, Paltrow, and a cast too great and numerous to list one by one), but still, I'm bored with people dying every time I walk in a theater or flip on a DVD. No one died in "Ted", but that was, well, it was okay. I laughed - I like Seth Rogen and Mark Wahlberg (and Mila Kunis acted circles around them with the thankless girlfriend-as-the-voice-of-reason role) - but I want a drama that doesn't involve gun play or explosions. For a couple of months... Heck, I don't even want to see "The Hobbit" because I'm bored with stabbings. And you know people are going to get stabbed in that.

Of course, I am also watching a Tarantino film on break from a meditation retreat so the argument could be made that I'm overly sensitive, but I don't think so. The past couple of weeks, I've wrestled with why it is that we care more for gunned down white children in Connecticut but don't particularly care about black kids who meet their demise every day in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or kids who are blown to bits by our drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I feel terrible for putting it like that, but why is it our media doesn't report with the same degree of urgency the ongoing "slaughter of the innocents" (if we want to be melodramatic about it) that goes on minute by minute in this mad world?

And excuse me for saying this; but I'm really tired of the "God talk" that comes up in the reporting. Swear to...well, whatever, but if these people's God is so great, good, kind and loving, he's dropped the ball big time. So I'm kind of done with bang bang shoot 'em up stuff for a while.

Also, I've been more than a little concerned with the unfolding rape stories coming out of India. What madness is this? I swear, sis, there are days when heading for the most remote spot I can find looks really tempting. Anyway, I think there is much more at work than mere geopolitics and social malaise, but I'll refrain from waxing goofy.

In the meantime, there is the third season of "Portlandia" starting. Next time in Houston, I'll be happy to check it out...unless Fred Armisen goes mental and takes out a MacDonalds because its a symbol of capitalist oppression or Kyle MacLachlan thinks he's back working for David Lynch...

Give a howdy if/when you get a chance...I may use this for Facebook or a blog post....

Sent from my iPad



Wednesday, December 19, 2012


I don't think I have anything terribly enlightening to add to the voices decrying and suffering from the Newtown shootings. I do think that there are some much brighter, smarter and insightful people offering reflection on this tragedy and I defer to them.

This first link is an essay by a woman who's son is afflicted by mental illness. She writes, "I am Adam Kanza's mother" because her son exhibits increasingly destructive and pathological behavior.

Brad Warner, whose work I admire as an author, a Buddhist, and all around thoughtful person has a strong blog post that opens up heartfelt discussions in the threads that follow the main post. There are a number of links worth clicking on throughout.

Last, there's this, from Roger Ebert that was published some years back, but it is worth considering how the media plays to emotions and either intentionally or not, those to sometimes evoke or provoke certain responses.

We live in this often chaotic world of madness of our own making. We are the victims, we are the perpetrators, too. We are capable of so much unthinking madness and destruction of self and others; however, we have a limitless capacity for healing, wholeness, and beauty.

It is a commonplace to say our prayers and thoughts are with the victims of any given tragedy, but I would like to expand that canvas to including all of us in these prayers and thoughts.

Peace to all,


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Autumnal thinking

I hope this doesn't sound too portentous, but I'm taking a different tack here. I'm thinking of drawing a little more inward, mostly because I've bored myself with looking at the outside. That said, I'll try not to be too heavy, but I think there's a lot going on that provokes a certain amount of reflection. I don't necessarily want to add "at this time of year" because reflection is provoked almost twenty-four by seven. Whether I express it or not, is another matter.

As a point of departure, I want to look at what in Buddhism are referred to as the four thoughts that "turn the mind" (that's only part of the phrase; the other part is "...toward the dharma", but I have a reason for not appending that just yet). The four thoughts are essentially reflections on 1) the fortuitous advent of a human birth, 2) death and impermanence, 3) karma and rebirth and 4) the path to liberation from the round of cyclic existence(s).

There are caveats. One is that I'm not orthodox in my interpretation of what the more technical terms might mean, another is that I'm hedging my bets on some fronts and a last one is that I offer this as points of departure for everyone else to share and reflect on.

This Fortuitous Juncture

According to a well worn trope in Buddhism, it is extremely difficult to obtain a human birth. It is said to be more difficult than the chance blind tortoise at the bottom of the ocean who swims to the surface once an eon and places his head randomly through a golden yoke has. The point is, it's not an ordinary occurrence. I sometimes wonder if this isn't an analogy for the probability that out of billions of sperm cells, only one has the potential to attach to an ovum and begin the metotic process resulting in an embryo.

In any event, the point is well-taken if we see this existence as a precious opportunity to live as fully, consciously and compassionately as possible. Usually, what follows upon introducing this topic is a sequence of arguments that lay out how important it is to investigate fully one's own existence and the connection we have with all other sentient beings. Thus, compassion is requisite and wisdom to implement that compassion equally so.

I feel that it's taken me this long to just begin to appreciate what all this means. If the saying that "youth is wasted on the young" rings true, it's because all you have to do is reflect where in your younger years you could have been more giving and more forgiving. It's also ludicrous to blame your parents, your upbringing, your environment; at a certain point, you get it. We have options; we can bitch and gripe about how crummy our lot in life is or if we're honest, we can see that we have at any given juncture, choices. This brings us to something more challenging.

Say that we come to one of those junctures. Lets say that I take this job instead of another; suppose it doesn't work out, suppose the company fails and my wife and children and I are reduced to food stamps and section eight housing? The outcome isn't predetermined. If quantum physics has taught us anything, contingency is the nature of the phenomena. If determinists want to mewl and puke about how every single detail is predestined, they are vey much missing the point. This will become exceedingly clearer in what is to follow.

Suffice it to say that life is more than the choices you or I make. There are deeper principles at work and this can seem both terrifying and dizzying. It can also open up horizons undreamed.

In order to grasp some small stretch of those horizons, let's look at the next thought.

Impermanence and Death

Nothing gets people going like this. Intellectually-oriented people will say "huh! Well of course all phenomena are impermanent and of course, we all have to die." Good on them. But it reminds me of a Mullah Nasruddin story. Nasruddin is strolling along when a man comes up, bids him good day and asks how he feels. Nasruddin replies, "I feel like a man who does not know if he will still be alive at sundown." The man says, "well, but that's every man's situation!" To which Nasruddin retorts, "yes! But how many feel it?"

For the most part,I don't think we feel the fact of our demises at all or we are aware of the end of phenomenal existence only at a remove. We don't want to think about it, we don't want to discuss it, and if we do, we figure that "it'll happen later down the line" or "there's a better world awaiting my immortal soul."

Well! More than likely,if you form the thought that it will happen later, that's reasonable. You're still alive to think it. The immortal soul bit? This comes closer to what we want to look at. What makes any of us think that this being is going to go on forever (and for those who believe in a punitive afterlife, this is a comfort?) and what is meant by this, "self"? Lets look at this a little bit.

We tend to conflate "I" with self. This "I", to paraphrase Arthur Rimbaud, is almost something completely other. The "I" is a composite, a ghost of acculturation, a synthesis of a "personal history" formed by countless interactions with "others" in a situation called by a kind of consensus, "the World." That's the best I can come up with. Wittgenstein said that "the world is all that is the case." I find that insufficient. The world is a fluid construct of verbal, physical, and mostly theoretical reality. It is transient at best, and the temptation is to say,deceptive at worst. But that belies the sense that the deception doesn't come from the World's side; it's we who deceive ourselves.

The main point is that the world is impermanent because we are impermanent. The world is only the world. It is we who invest it with meaning. This is not necessarily Existentialism 101. It's simply us. And there is great beauty in this, if we choose to recognize that the underlying, relatively constant values that we imbue the world with hold meaning relationally. Do we survive death? This is a meaningless question. We have people on record who have been clinically dead and revived to come back with reports of lights and deceased loved ones waiting, but what if that's simply neural firings as the brain is winding down. You can be clinically dead and there is still organic functioning at a level below what is recordable. Of course, you'd see dead relatives! If you're Christian, you might see Jesus, if Hindu Krishna, if, well, you get the idea. But this is all trivial before the fact that, regardless of your belief, you have to let go of this physical existence. You may live to a ripe old age, doddering and drooling. Or not: maybe you're incredibly sharp at 120, but you - as a body - cannot remain. Sorry, pal. You gotta go.

So why do we assume continuity? Part of it is because our physical structure regenerates at a remarkably fast pace. Atoms come together and wander off. Somehow, structures remain relatively intact, but/and with time, change. Most often, they degrade. But they have to terminate sooner or later.

This also includes our "I." Let's look at this again. The "I" is a composite psychic structure that is formed over the course of time by relations, both "external" (as in social interactions) and "internal" (thoughts and images and feelings and emotions) and the cyclic iterations and reiterations of these relations. Is the "I" completely fictional? Ultimately, yes. But "I" exist in relation provisionally. In relation to you and you and you. In relation to objects and situations that "I" react to. The process of reaction continues to construct this fabricated existence. The up side is that through relationship, genuine caring and acceptance of others can come to fruition and the "world" - which for the moment, we can say is all the phenomena we encounter as individual beings - can be situated as a creative process that we can contribute to building. The down side is that we accept everything we tell ourselves uncritically, beginning with thinking that the "I" is the individual, fixed, permanent and the truth of which is unassailable.

If we take the latter approach, we miss out on the prismatic and multivalvent nature of existence. We also set ourselves up for pretty fearful transactions when we encounter the big issues. For some, this is a positive; a shock can be a wake-up call that what is seen isn't as it is. For others, this can be traumatic; the shock can result in disorientation and disintegration and debilitating emotional turmoil. But at some point, we have to encounter the death of "I."

Of course, there are those who would argue that casting consciousness as an emergent property of biochemical interactions doesn't account for how that very interaction transpires and that the idealisms of everyone from the Vedic Hindus to the Gnostics and Hegel hold fast that the phenomenal word is illusory and erroneous at best. Nevertheless, this transition beckons.

Some hold that one's mind stream passes through various intermediate states before re-entry into another enworldment. Others say that subjectively nothing happens. In either event, we assume that memory of prior incarnate events is wiped. Buddhists hold that only those further along the path to enlightenment remember their previous births. Perhaps this a fine entry to the next post which will use the third thought that turns the mind as the beginning point of discussion.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

World Human Rights Day

Tomorrow, 10 December, is World Human Rights Day. A couple of my friends in India have already hailed it and my friend Anne asked what are you going to do for Human Rights Day on her FB page. Fleur Carter wrote a typically eloquent post here. If the link doesn't work, copy and paste this URL:

I'll be succinct and lazy. I'm cribbing this from my note to Fleur:

I think the main thing is that if people just take a few minutes to consider the ramifications of our actions, take a little time to see that caring a little more for our neighbor - whether it's a friend or someone who really tests our patience - than ourselves is a viable approach to living together, then we have seeds planted to that degree in becoming more actively engaged human rights supporters.
That said, to everyone who supports or volunteers with any given group, spread the word. If anyone is on the fence, do a little research, find an organization that makes sense to you and throw in a little love for them. I have a short list I'm always happy to share (and will post later today or tomorrow); doesn't matter who you throw in with in this arena. What helps one, helps all. Succeed in helping one person up an we are all uplifted a little more.
My short list is here without links, but I think everyone knows how to use a search engine for more information.

  1. Human Rights Watch
  2. Amnesty International
  3. Oxfam
  4. Physicians for Human Rights
  5. Medicines sans Frontieres
  6. The Red Cross
  7. Save the Children Fund
You be the idea. You may share some of my interests, so there are more specialized endeavors like US Campaign for Burma, Students for Free Tibet, Machik, and so on. In the main, if there is some area of human rights you'd like to support, there are always places that need you.

Peace, all.